With the once-great Premier Automotive Group gone the way of ancient Rome, Ford knows its Lincoln brand needs to get a lot more serious. It also needs younger buyers from the generation known as X, or it will never fully emerge from the realm of "exit-level" automobiles.
Gen X is a demographic you don't often think of when you're talking about Lincoln customers. Its mere mention caused me to spit-take a latte during Lincoln's recent presentation on their latest MKS. But the mandarins in Dearborn are convinced that their new sedan has what it takes to get Gen-Xers' antennae all a-twitter.
Surprisingly, the car is no 3-series fighter, crossover, hybrid, or other trendy niche product built to tempt the moderately young and upwardly mobile. Nope, in terms most Gen Xers will understand, Lincoln has decided to reel them in with the Jan Brady of the lineup. It's a D-segment car, built to go up against the likes of the Lexus GS or the Cadillac STS. If, at this point, your skepticism is brewing over, take a stub. The line forms behind me as I head out for my first real-world look at the MKS.
One need not dig far into Lincoln's past to know that this car's predecessors have been all over the board. Two models back, the last of the once-great Continentals was a portly Taurus-based front-driver with aged styling unappreciated even by the reverse-mortgage set. Then came the rear-wheel-drive LS, a car that performed well but had all the sex appeal of a Mitsubishi Diamante.
This time around it's back to the Taurus platform. Fortunately for the MKS, its chassis' roots can be traced to Volvo. Ford seriously re-worked the structure for the Taurus, and then added a new rear subframe with independent rear suspension for improved handling. Both the MKS and the Ford Flex get this rear end.
Under the hood is a new 3.7-liter version of the 3.5-liter V-6 fitted in the smaller MKZ sedan and the MKX crossover. It may not feature turbos, direct injection, or a decadent cylinder count to crank in extra awesomeness, but the 3.5-liter version is a Ward's "10 Best Engines" winner and this latest 3.7 does boast fuel-saving measures such as a two-stage fuel pump and a fuel cut-off mode during serious deceleration. Power is routed through a six-speed automatic transmission to either the front wheels or all four if you opt for the hydraulic clutch–based all-wheel-drive system.
Outside, the MKS splits from the bland styling of Lincoln's recent past by borrowing cues from further back. Design chief Peter Horbury's attention to detail is apparent from every angle. What Horbury refers to as the "waterfall" grille was heavily inspired by the 1941 Continental and is meant to invoke water breaking at the bow of a yacht, not your family vacation to Niagara Falls. Character lines, chamfered shoulders, and copious Lincoln star logos round out the look that's clearly more handsome and defined than any Lincoln in recent decades. This despite the fact that the car's styling was already under development when Horbury stepped in with his new design language.
Optional polished 20-inch wheels help give our particular test car a better stance, while Lincoln's new signature tuxedo black metallic paint nicely complements the shiny rims. The hue's name is a head-scratcher, given that it has no metallic in it at all. Rather than the traditional mica flakes, Lincoln uses fine glass shards in this new shade, giving the flecks more sparkle. Under sunlight, it is gorgeous. Under the kind of halogen lighting you might find in a parking garage, the flakes get even more intense, resembling a bass boat or '70s-era Meyers Manx.
Inside, you'll find a cabin more lavish than any Lincoln we can remember, with leatherette across the dash and double-stitched shapes that echo Lincolns of a bygone era. That the Scottish Bridge of Weir leather on the seats was originally fitted in the Ford Model T or Lincoln Continental Mark II may be lost on the typical thirtysomething, but the fact that it's organic and uses chromium-free tanning methods is likely to impress him nonetheless. So is the fact that the seats' perforated surfaces can both heat or cool front occupants. Plastic materials and switchgear are improved for Lincoln but don't set any new standards in the segment. Trunk and cabin space, however, are best in class.
And then there's the infotainment. Lincoln's new navigation and in-car entertainment array is staggering and might be the real reason why this car will make the short list for some Gen Xers. On the face of it, there's a new 8.0-inch touch-screen navigation system. While geographic guidance is nice, the MKS also offers Sirius's new Travel Link program with one-way Internet connectivity (it receives but does not send). With this setup, Sirius and Lincoln offer real-time traffic information for the top 78 markets; five-day weather forecasts or weather maps overlaid on the navigation; movie listings with routing to the theater; and a call function with paired phones. Fuel prices and navigation to nearby stations — along with sports scores for NFL, NBA, MLB, PGA, NASCAR, and NCAA football and basketball — are all part of the package.
There's an in-dash six-disc CD changer that'll play MP3 files or store up to 10 gigs of music to an internal hard drive. Ripped to the drive or played from another source, the MKS comes pre-loaded with the Gracenote database, meaning it can identify songs and even assign album cover art on the screen. The hard drive will also accept your favorite photos, to be displayed full screen or split screen while you peruse your music lists or follow navigation. The lone disappointment is that there's no pause-and-save function for radio programming as on Cadillac's CTS.
The player is also compatible with DVDs, meaning DVD audio anytime or the ability to watch movies while the car is in park — and that's where the deal gets even sweeter. If you're going to watch a movie or listen to some ultra-high quality DVD audio, then you'd better have a system that can show it off. Standard in the MKS is a new THX II–certified 5.1 surround sound system with a 12-channel, 600-watt "smart amp" that produces digital sound via 16 speakers, a 10-inch subwoofer among them. The THX setup even boasts logic that up-mixes lesser-quality CDs for richer sound.
Ambient noise is kept to a minimum thanks to sound-absorbing carpet, laminated glass, and an acoustical headliner — all of this gives the car less cabin noise than the Lexus GS, according to Lincoln. Power up the sound system and the MKS can get loud in a way that you feel as much as you hear, so Lincoln has taken care to eliminate panel and trim rattle. We heard no hint of plastic chatter even when blasting bass-laden audio DVDs loaned to us by engineers wearing THX-logo polo shirts. We entered the car skeptical and stepped out across the MKS's aluminum sill plate grinning with a whiter smile thanks to a thorough sonic cleaning.
This being a Ford product, Sync is a cornerstone of the MKS's infotainment system. The latest version of Ford and Microsoft's digital lovechild continues to offer voice- or screen-navigated integration with the latest iPods, MP3 devices, and Bluetooth-equipped phones. Later this year, it'll also get 911 assistance wherein the car dials 911 on a paired phone after airbag deployment, sending a pre-recorded message in case the driver can't speak for him- or herself.
On the road we were further impressed with the MKS. The steering is nicely weighted and the ride is communicative without being harsh, even on 20-inch wheels. Pass over expansion joints or potholes and the MKS softens the blows to a subtle twitch. Cornering is nice and flat, without any steering kickback. While Lincoln marketers readily admit the car is not aimed at its more sporting European competition, the MKS sets up for sweepers tidily.
Hard on the throttle, the 3.7 V-6 displays its additional torque. With considerable weight to throw around, acceleration is respectable but not mind-blowing. Shifts are relatively quick from the transmission, which does have a manual shift option down on the console but no paddles.
This Lincoln isn't as stirring as a BMW, but the MKS will leave the casual driver satisfied and guilt-free that he chose it more for its electronic offerings than its track-day abilities. That said, cars fitted with Ford's EcoBoost direct-injection, turbocharged V-6 are expected within a year and will likely benefit from more sporting suspension calibrations and maybe, just maybe, the dual-clutch Powershift gearbox Ford's been developing with Getrag.
The Lincoln MKS isn't the sexiest car in its niche, nor is it built with the most exclusive materials. It's not the best handling, nor the fastest. But it's closer than Lincoln's been in a while. Good thing, too: When the MKS hits showrooms in just a few weeks, pricing will range from roughly $38,000 to $49,000.
In the end though, it will be the infotainment that makes the car stand out like Obama Girl at a Kentucky primary. Gen Xers aren't horribly badge-focused, but they're obsessed with information. The MKS offers more of it than anything out there right now. We're guessing this last point is why some 8600 MKS orders have already been placed before the cars have even hit showrooms.